All words: Bryce Rudow
All photos: Alex Anderson
Usually, for these Who The Fuck Are You first-listens/interviews, I get to invite a band to BYT’s super swanky office to enjoy beers and Kind Bars and jazz cigarettes. Unfortunately, when it came time for me to get an advanced listen of Drop Electric’s new album Waking Up To The Fire, we at BYT were mid-Bentzen Ball and our managing editor told me to politely fuck off and find somewhere else to go.
After a bit of back-and-forth, eventually we decided that my photographer and compatriot for this series, Alex Anderson, and I would head to the house where the three core members of Drop Electric, Sho Fujiwara, Ramtin Arablouei, and Kristina Rezkinov lived (with the newest addition to the band, Navid Marvi, there as well, but band-member Neel Singh sadly absent).
But on the way, I had trouble trying to describe the band to Alex. I did my best to explain that they’re a DC band which, after releasing two albums of “if Explosions in the Sky had a dark streak” rock, had begun experimenting with more electronic and hip-hop influences as of late.
But they could still rock out…
But they were also really poppy at times…
But sometimes it was also kind of shoegazey…
Oh, and they pride themselves on the videography attached to their music, whether that be their music videos or the high-art flashes that play behind them during live events.
Essentially, they’re a group that not just defies but rebels against classification, leading to only one applicable truth about this band:
You just have to listen to these guys.
It’s always funny walking into someone’s house for the first time. There’s an immediate instinct to Room Raid and do as good a Sherlock Holmes impression as possible, a need to decipher meaning from every clue in front of you.
In this case, as I walked into the home of Drop Electric, I was bombarded with the overwhelming realization that a VERY hard-working band lived there. There were cables and instruments snaking around the carpet and all furniture arrangements seemed relegated to wherever their practice spaces would allow.
After a quick tour, we settled into a formation on the large couch facing a sound system that was perched along computer screens, mixing boards, and keyboards, and we started to chat. I quickly learned that the emotive, thrashing rockers I knew from on and backstage were a much more relaxed, funny, and (I mean this in the best way) dorky group than I ever expected. Especially after some Kristina-made vodka cocktails, I was able to really understand what kind of interesting personalities make this raging machine of sound tick.
Sho, due to both his stage presence and his handling of the behind-the-scenes work, is the obvious face of Drop Electric, but drummer Ramtin is its central nervous system. Everything flows through him, and it’s not a coincidence that the band’s electronic and hip-hop directional shift coincides with the fact that Ramtin has been admittedly spending a lot of time on Ableton. As he even admits, “This is our Ableton album.”
He’s poetic when he speaks, but he’s always quick to point out that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s actually a funny, humanizing experience to hear some of his thoughts juxtaposed against one another: I asked him about the band’s “darker” tendencies and he extolled, “Really dark music is so devastating it makes me feel good,” but then later revealed to me in-between giggles that one of the sounds on a particular song was created by crinkling a bag of weed into a microphone. No matter the topic, his zealous spirit shines over it.
And it’s that kind of passion without pretension that oozes through every second of Waking Up To The Fire.
It’s what makes everything feel a bit bigger, a bit more cinematic. It’s what turns what could be a simple synth-pop song into a thematic, layered tapestry of rich textures. Sure, it’s at times misdirected, it’s at times off-step, but the full commitment that they bring to each song helps smooth out any rough edges that might poke out during the listening experience.
You know that any album that starts with a building synth and organ riff is going to be pretty epic.
“Other Planets,” the opening track, is slightly reminiscent of “Intro” off M83’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, with its tantalizingly slow buildup, but where the Frenchmen let their song blossom, Drop Electric are content to let theirs crackle and spark into its climax. They’re musical showmen, and they understand how to establish tone; yes it bounces, but it’s never bright. The intentional shrillness of the synths mixed with the Kristina’s haunting vocals keep this more fever dream than dream-pop.
And having that type of vocal ability at their disposal is a relatively new toy for the band.
One of the best, most pleasant surprises of this record is how well it shows off singer Kristina’s transformation into a full-fledged vocalist. Having seen them live a few times and knowing their earlier catalogue, I had previously labeled her as what football fans know as a “game manager”. With the right supporting cast, she could be part of a great song, but she wasn’t going to be the reason for it and shouldn’t be relied on too heavily.
Like a responsible hard-hitting journalist, I asked them about her development and she quickly admitted, “It was very stressful when I first started singing because I was never a singer before; the first time I got on stage, I almost toppled over in fear…But the past year of shows I’ve felt like I’m not worried about it anymore. I’ve taught myself how to sing. A lot of it is confidence and practice.” As Ramtin explained, “She’s putting up with four dudes who usually want to play as loud as they can,” and admitted that “her learning curve was so steep.”
And it shows, she’s able to carry more than a few songs on the record and the music around her is now built more towards her strengths. For example, by placing her above the grooving moog textures dancing low in the mix in the following track, “Waking Up To The Fire,” her mysterious, echoed coo is allowed to sweep over the electronic instrumentation. It makes for a very balanced song that harkens to traces of personal-favorite Polica, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as a single.
But it’s the third track, “Blue Dream,” that really opens up the album in terms of what it’s capable of. It’s poppy in that sassy way that fellow DC-ers Misun own so well while still retaining Drop Electric’s signature edge. I did prod about if they were worried that some of their more rock-leaning fans would revolt hearing this new pop sound, but the professorial Ramtin countered by saying, “If you worry about that shit, then you never progress. At some point you have to make the music you like.” Sho backed him up by affirming, “The music is different, but I hope people realize the uniqueness of these songs.”
And they should. It’s not often you have a pop song disintegrate the way “Blue Dream” does with its schizophrenic vocal sampling. And it’s not often you follow that kind of song with an instrumental hip-hop beat like “Wack Rapper Meets Defeat.”
The only notes I wrote when listening to this song, slightly high and with the bass cranked up, were: “I want Pusha T on this. I want him to drop filthy bars about cocaine and mean streets on this. I want him to tell me what he’s going to do with someone’s bitch on this.” I’m sticking by all of that.
A hip-hop undercurrent is palpable in a lot of their songs, something they not only attest to but are excited about. Ramtin explains, “I’ve always been a fan of hip-hop music,” and when I ask them if they’d ever consider teaming up with a hip-hop artist, he salivates as he considers it: “We all really love hip-hop and the music would work. It would be really interesting for us, and we’ve talked about doing a remix for one of the songs.” Ras Nebyu and ACME, I’m calling you both out now.
It’s a bit of a mindfuck to hear the intrusive “Wack Rapper Meets Defeat” fade into the skittering, unsettling groove of “Higgs Boson,” but it works. And the patience the band has in terms of letting its first movement really establish itself before letting loose the toxic-bass second half of the song is commendable. But it’s the meticulousness with which they let everything eviscerate that’s really remarkable. The pipe-bursting, Reznor-sharp attacking distorted guitar is best described by Ramtin (“it’s rude”), but it’s my compatriot Alex who captures the best sentiments about the song: “For a particle, that was pretty big.”
“The Coming Storm” is a nod to their cinematic tendencies (and a way for me to learn that they actually work with a company that licenses music for trailers), but it also sets the stage well for “Carl Pagan,” one of the album’s highlights. Ramtin’s Ableton skills are put to good use, Kristina is able to deftly slink her way through the sprawling instrumentation, and the abstract song structure allows the song to feel like it envelops instead of progresses. In regards to that structure, Kristina comments, “We don’t do verse-chorus-verse-chorus, but I think that’s what makes us different and more of post-rock pop band.”
I’m so jealous I didn’t think of that description for their music…
But I’m also going to assume it’s why they thought “Starfox”, their failed experiment with 8-bit and the next song on the record, should be included. Fortunately, it’s the only true misfire on the album. And just for the record, I still hate Slippy the Frog.
The next two songs, the bread-and-butter, accessibly synthy “Lucille” (which has a video release soon) and the enjoyably creepy “Stack Overflow” (which sounds like the witchy cousin to Purity Ring’s fairy-pop) do a good job of washing away the bad taste of “Starfox” away though and, to quote Sho, “help connect the different parts of the album.”
But more importantly, they clear away the pallet so that the album closer, “Among Dying Dreams,” can be enjoyed properly.
The oldest song on the album, Ramtin proudly claims, “This is a song we all love a lot.” And it’s easy to see why. The Mount Kimbie-leaning percussion that climbs its way into prominence grabs the attention but relaxes the mind; it’s meditation music at its finest. And once the song grows enough to let the horns in to shine, it’s absolutely freeing.
As it reaches its zenith, Sho declares, “The first song and the last song couldn’t be in any other places on this album,” and he’s absolutely correct. I wish I could better articulate the feeling of getting lost in the last two minutes of this song…
But you just have to listen to these guys.